Clean cookstoves: the art of defence and diplomacy

China’s welcome decision to join the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was announced last month during Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing. Last night the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a consummation of the relationship in a webcast panel discussion involving Li Bin, Counselor for Economic Affairs at the Chinese Embassy.

The event doubled up as an opportunity for Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, to rehearse her lines for Rio+20 where she will be hounded by reservations about stove projects expressed in recent academic research.

The event was a classic Washington set-piece of quasi-diplomacy, fluent and stimulating, with a palpable sense of excitement that here at last was a chance to say something nice about China. The CSIS moderator alongside the State Department representative were like small boys allowed out of school after a long detention (which they deserve for misspelling Mr Li’s name on the agenda).

Needless to say, the session was ruthlessly choreographed by Daniel Runde, CSIS Director of the Project on Prosperity and Development. The audience remained invisible and silent, obliged to write their questions on pieces of paper, none of which was read out.

In fairness to Mr Runde, he did offer plenty of rope for Ms Muthiah to hang herself. “Why is the developing world littered with failed projects,” he demanded.

But Radha was ready for Runde, if you’ll forgive the alliteration. She laid out the problems of past programmes (the emphasis was hers, doubtless to be repeated over coming days):

  • insufficient training of users
  • single designs not matched to local circumstances
  • insufficient consideration of appropriate fuel
  • free stoves have no perceived value. There must be a market

These worries were more than matched by good news about the Global Alliance – 36 countries on board, 300 stakeholder partners, $100m raised and a major announcement involving Sweden promised for Rio+20.

I sometimes wonder whether the numbers that matter are going to add up. The Global Alliance aims to equip 100 million households with clean stoves by 2020, that’s around 500 million people. Whilst it’s not the only cookstove show in town, the Alliance does hoover up the serious donors, it has the biggest celebs (Julia Roberts) and the biggest corporate supporters (Shell).

Yet there are another 2.2 billion people requiring modernisation by 2030, if the UN Sustainable Energy For All goals are to be achieved.

If you’ve got a phobia with big numbers, there’s one country sure to help you out. Cue in Mr Li who was clearly unimpressed with a target of 100 million. “China has already provided 189 million efficient wood-burning stoves,” he said. “We have the technology and the manufacturing capacity to do another 189 million, or maybe more, maybe better.”

That will be music to the ears of Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, whose inspiration was invoked frequently during the discussion. We learned that Hillary loves partnerships (especially with China), she loves cookstoves and she “loves” China’s State Councillor, Dai Bingguo. The triumph of cookstove diplomacy was a foregone conclusion in Beijing.

One thing baffles me. If China is onside with the dangers of cooking smoke, why does it oppose the US insertion of a sentence on short-lived climate pollutants in the draft outcome document for Rio+20? Black carbon is bad news, whatever the source.

This may be one problem with The Future We Want that we shouldn’t worry about.

On Tuesday it was announced that the leader of the US delegation to Rio+20 would be Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK